ASWC Looks Forward

Alasdair Padman, News Editor

On Sunday, Oct. 23, members both of the student body and ASWC engaged in a forum about the form and function of student government in response to the events of Sept. 30 senate meeting. This might have been the first public discussion surrounding these issues, but it was not the first within ASWC.

This forum was moderated by the Associate Dean for Intercultural Affairs, Kazi Joshua, and the Interim Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Helen Kim. While they laid the foundation for the conversation, including asking questions and getting students to share their opinions, it was the student body both within and without ASWC that faced the challenge of redefining and restructuring student government so that it would better serve its constituents.

Dean Joshua reflected on the many themes that were brought up by students. He and Professor Kim moved between tables as students began to grapple with the problem before them.

“We heard certain themes begin to emerge: is this really the best way to organize a government? Is there a different way? A kind of peoples assembly? Are there different ways of engagement?” Dean Joshua asked. “I think what came out was a real thoughtfulness about the purposes of student government. Whether it did what it needed to do for the ASWC senators–I think they are now beginning to get quite a bit of what people are saying and… to begin to think, what are the pieces that could be rethought?”

He went on to divide these themes into two common lines of thought that appeared during the forum. He stressed the importance of both in considering the path ahead.

“There’s a theme that says, the structure of student government is broken; it should be radically transformed: a kind-of revolutionary take,” Dean Joshua said. “There’s another approach that says, there are parts of it that do not work; can there be reform? Revolution versus reform, if you will.”

ASWC is based upon a familiar structure: that of the United States government. While this structure has largely remained unchanged, members of the student body are now questioning whether it best represents their interests.  In his analysis of the forum, Dean Joshua drew a powerful connection between ASWC’s failings and those of the United States.

“There’s that question that is emerging: how do we know when a senator votes at a senate meeting on a particular piece of legislation,” Dean Joshua asked. “The people do not know whether that senator is actively representing the people of their class. The fact of the matter is [this is the] same question that we can ask any one of our congress-people. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, when she votes on certain things, to what degree is she representing you, or other interests?”

Omar Aldahleh, the Vice-President of Legislative Affairs on ASWC, also stressed the necessity for ASWC to become a form of government that does not hamper its constituents, but advocates for them.

“Immediately after the events of the senate on Sept. 30, the day after, almost the entire ASWC membership met in Reid and had a discussion about what actions we should take to move forward,” Aldahleh said. “It was there that we decided to draft a statement and send it out to the student body. It also started discussions on structural changes as well as looking at how can we start getting more incorporation of student engagement, so that ASWC becomes more of a trampoline than a roadblock that people have to get through in order to advocate for things that they [want] changed on our campus.”

The theme of structural change was of particular note to Professor Kim, the other moderator of the forum. She also emphasized that many students feel disconnected from ASWC.

“The theme of ASWC being its own entity that, perhaps for many, exists in a bubble. There was a lot of good beginning ideas on how to break down those walls,” Professor Kim said. “The question of accessibility continues to come up. I thought there was also a lot of good discussion surrounding the structure of [ASWC], having been in place for many decades in a way that has really gone unquestioned. [Students are now questioning it]. Especially because it was a structure that was in place when there was a very different student population with different needs and desires.”

Last year, ASWC rewrote its constitution. It was first major change to the organization  in almost 10 years.

“I think it was actually a senator who said, ‘I haven’t really read the constitution.’ There were changes,” Professor Kim said. “But I think a big part of building a structure is how are we going to proactively put in mechanisms that allow us to constantly go back to the structure and ask: is this working?”

At the end of the forum, all students in attendance were asked to contribute their ideas and their hopes for the future of student government on Whitman Campus. These would then be shared with ASWC senators.

“This really gives me hope for the future of ASWC,” Aldahleh said. “ [I’m saying this] as a person of color who has also felt isolated by ASWC in the past, even as a person of color who is on ASWC. I really do think that this is a turning point that people can look back and say, ‘Wow, change was made. Things got a little bit better.’”

Dean Joshua was also impressed both by the suggestions of the students and their willingness to engage with crucial and difficult conversations around the role and function of student government.

“So I know that, since the events of Sept. 30, there have been many students who have been experiencing different emotions and challenges, whatever side of the controversy they are on. That is totally understandable,” Dean Joshua said. “But for me, the conversations that have happened, including the one [on the role of student government], reminds me of why I work at Whitman, and the potential that our students have to lead us, but also to create different possibilities in which every voice can be heard. While I would not have chosen the circumstances that brought us to the conversation [on Sunday], I am tremendously grateful to be working with students that can look beyond the present moment and ask themselves, ‘how can we create a form of governance that will truly do justice to the aspirations of every Whitman student.’”